A little bit of Thai history: Before Bangkok

by gonzotrooper

About a month ago, I was in a tight spot and was helped out by a good friend. As part of my repayment I plan to write a little piece about Thai history once every month, for the next twelve months. Also: It’s a great way to learn about the history of another country. Which I like to do. Cause I’m a nerd.

Anyway, I like to start with the beginning:  Although Thailand (also known as Siam, historically) has had human settlements as early as  half a million years ago (they have found fossils of Homo Erectus in the region),  and several tribes of hunter gatherers lived in the region but it was by South East Asian standards fairly empty. There were several independent civilizations in the region, with roots mainly from Malay and Mon-Khmer origins, but frankly we know little of what happened before the thirteenth century, as little written or oral records exist from before then. The Tai people came to the region around this time from Southwestern China. But they were not a ethnic or linguistic group of the Sino-Tibetan family, but of Austronesian origin, migrating from the south seas Islands. They had gradually migrated from south China through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia of today before ending up in what much later would be Thailand.  The region was dominated by the Khmer culture, with a mighty kingdom centered in Ankhor Wat, but as they declined and disappeared as an empire the Burmese, Siamese and Vietnamese formed empires of their own, and struggled for supremacy of the region of Southeast Asia.

Now normally this is the point where historical texts delve on the names of great monarchs, decisive battles and cities. I won’t. Apart from the city state of Ayutthaya and the king Rama the first, I won’t go inty names much. What I will delve on in this text are some concepts I personally suspect were keys to form modern Thai culture: Ethnic and religious dversity, thirst for knowledge, and the Meuang system.

The Meuang system, also described as the Mandala system (as concentric circles) or the galactic or solar  system (with a strong core and several satellites)  was how empires were built, organized and maintained. The idea was basically the opposite of Genghis Khan’s policy “Kill your enemies, see them driven before you, hear the lamentations of their women” (And by the way, yes.  That IS the line used in  “Conan the Barbarian” of 1982. John Millius is a huge Genghis Khan fan). What happened when a city dominated another (usually by warfare but sometimes also as a vassal state), the subject was taken into the “Meuang” or empire if you will. The ruler was usually not replaced, but members of his family might be drawn as retainers for the overlord of the federation of city states. Sometimes sisters or daughters of the client king  were married to the overlord as well, and some privileged subjects might have a daughter or female relative betrothed to them. Mainly, these functioned as hostages (from the subject) or spies (for the overlord).  And of course, the subject paid tribute to the overlord. However: The overlord state would bestow gifts of religious and cultural value and give prestige to the subject. He would no longer be an independent monarch, but his personal prestige as member of the new “mandala” of concentric circles of satellites to the capitol city would actually often increase.  Empires in this region were built mainly by consensus, not by violence.

Sadly, violence became more and more prevalent when the imperial players in the region were running out of client states to conquer.  This was when the Siamese, Burmese, and Vietnamese started seriously opening new cans of whoop-ass on each other.  Asia is a continent where civilization and science have had a long progress, often a head of Europe. Sadly it is often military innovations that are implemented first, in Southeast Asia as elsewhere. During the fifteenth  century the rulers invested in Chinese cannon, Arab cannon, eventually Portuguese muskets cannon (better than the Asian designs), and not least conscription.  Soon massive armies of levied peasants were shooting at each other and at war elephants in the region. Again, this is where usually a great battle decides history with many glorious dead and a great leader emerging as ruler of the region. This didn’t really happen, however. The wars surged and ebbed, with the advantage changing from one ruler to the other. After many years of war and all capitols of the empires involved (the Siamese included) burned and sacked at least once, the peasants themselves finally had had enough.   You didn’t really have a big unified revolt, but people found more and more ways to evade the draft. Joining a monastery as a monk, bribing a monastary to enlist as a fake monk,  enlisting as a vassal of a local noble not engaged in the wars, bribing a local noble to be listed as a fake vassal, or simply running off into the jungle… Eventually the rulers simply could not field armies of any significant size, and the fighting more or less petered out. The fact that most important cities had solid walls and cannon to protect them from raids also helped, and after several failed sieges Siam at least entered a period of pece. This is when the Ayuttaha kingdom grew to be a major player in the region, and in many ways the precursor of Thailand.

Ayutthaya was a city founded in a particularly fertile river valley Chao Phraya, and was the core of a kingdom lasting from 1350 to 1767. It really bloomed in the fifteenth century, very much due to the fact that it didn’t spend a lot on military expenses, becoming a trade centered society. As mentioned the Tai people (no bombshell here: they eventually became the Thai) were the dominant people here, but there were Son-Khmer people,  Lao people, Burmese and Chinese as well. This ethnic mix led to a great degree of tolerance, and the kingdom (known abroad as Siam at this point) ruled with a mix of aristocratic noble privileges and meritocracy: Basically positions of power were decided by noble birth, but outsiders were recruited as well. Not only Chinese and Indians, but French, Portuguese, Dutch and English officials ruled within the bureaucracy of Ayutthaya. Of course, taxes on trade were strict, and since this was a trade center the Portuguese equalled to India and Japan in the sixteenth century, money was flowing in. Siam had ambassadors in France during the reign of Louis the XIV, the Sun King, and French ambassadors in Ayutthaya reported the city as rivalling Paris in size and splendour. Not in righes and luxuries though: There were no European powere even close to this kingdom in wealth at this time.

But all things come to an end: During the eighteenth century the kingdom broke into squabbling factions of royal heirs fighting for right of succession and Burma saw an opening. Before you could say “RAIDING PARTY!” they had an army of some 40 000 soldiers taking over the tributary villages and towns, and eventually taking the capitol itself. Stealing everything not nailed to the floor, they set fire to what could not be moved and one of the greatest cities of Southeast Asia was no more. The entire royal library and as good as all written records were lost as well, with only ruins remaining of the capitol to this day.

This was not the start of a great Burmese empire however: When China used the opening to press their own forces deep into Burma the occupying army had to withdraw from Siam after only months, and Siam regrouped as a nation. After some tumults, and a chaotic period one general Chacri came to power, took the royal name Rama I, and founded Bangkok as the new capitol of Siam. But more about him and about Bangkok next month!